After Judge Wiley Daniel Made History, He Mentored Young African American Lawyers

May 17, 2019
Photo: Judge Wiley Daniel
(L-R) Alfred Harrell, Wiley Daniel, Leslie Fields, Daniel Muse and Gary M. Jackson after Daniel received the King Trimble Lifetime Achievement Award from the Sam Cary Bar Association.

In 1995, Wiley Daniel broke a historic barrier. Daniel was named the first African American judge on the federal court that serves Colorado.

But over the years, that was only one of Daniel's claims to fame. He was a leader in the legal community, known for stressing the need for diversity in the field and for mentoring other black lawyers.

Daniel died recently at the age of 72. In a 2017 video, he explained his drive to ensure that  lawyers from diverse backgrounds had the opportunity to succeed. 

"When I grew up in Kentucky during my formative years, everything was segregated — that included the schools, for much of that time, restaurants, movie theaters and other public accommodations," Daniel said. "And I lived through the civil rights struggle of the '60s and I saw the powerful difference that law made in changing lives, in righting injustices, in allowing African Americans to have a better life."

Daniel arrived in Denver in 1997 and joined the Sam Cary Bar Association, an organization for black lawyers. There, he met attorney Gary Jackson, who's now a Denver County judge.

Jackson figures there were just 20 to 25 black lawyers in town during that era. Because career opportunities were limited, most of them started small private practices or worked for the government. Daniel, though, took a job at a prestigious Denver law firm dominated by whites.

"He was one of the first black partners on 17th Street," Jackson said. "He had to compete with other partners in terms of billable hours, in terms of attracting clients, and representing his clients well." 

In 1995, President Bill Clinton appointed Daniel to the U.S. District Court in Denver.

"It was historic," Jackson said. "It was tremendous to the African American community, to all communities of color, since there were no Latinos, no Asians, no other judges of color in our region. So it was a tremendous and necessary achievement in terms of the history of our country and the history of, let's say, equal opportunity." 

Daniel retired in 2013 but continued to hear some cases and guide younger lawyers, such as Joe Whitfield, a deputy district attorney in Arapahoe County. They met at an event for black lawyers and became friends. 

Whitfield said Daniel didn't talk much to young lawyers about his own career accomplishments.

"He spent more time empowering us — to show us that we were just as capable of doing everything he had done and more and to get us to believe it, because he had ben there and he had seen it," Whitfield said. "That was the crux of who he was, was to effect change and build  a legacy through other people. I can tell you his impact is broad. It's so broad it goes beyond the law, it goes beyond African Americans, it goes beyond lawyers. I only hope people recognize that not just now, not just at this time, but for years to come."